Well, the Maple Leafs may be struggling, but not so the loyal respondents to this week’s mail bag, who have generously supplied us with some intriguing and pointed questions. Let’s get right to it:
Q: Hi Damien,
I've relaxed , had my chamomile tea, and this team is not "hard to play against" as promised by Paul Maurice during the pre-season. I agree that JFJ has made some very poor signings and trades but I don't see how coach Maurice gets a free pass. This team looks unorganized on most nights and their lack of dicipline (too many bad penalities) are telltale signs of poor coaching. I don't see the veterans being held accountable for their poor performances (Sundin's -4 rating in the 3rd period against Chicago being a prime eg.) I remember a former Leaf coach named Burns who would demand better play or players would be watching from upstairs.
Mike Verdile, Thorold
A: Hard to argue with what you’re saying, Mike. I think Maurice has largely received a free pass, but then, that’s not totally unfair for a coach who hasn't even guided the team for 100 games yet. In terms of benching players for poor performance, he has continued the practice started under Pat Quinn of never using that as a motivational tool. The belief is that if you stick with a player, he’ll come through for you in the end. Problem is, for the Leafs, I believe that has created a culture in which veterans aren’t as accountable, particularly when they are cheered wildly and continue to be popular no matter what they do. Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker would be good examples. Bryan McCabe is certainly being held accountable by the fans, and I suppose you could say the coaching staff has, by giving Pavel Kubina more ice time than McCabe, held McCabe accountable to a certain extent.
But your points on penalties are well made – how many more offensive zone hooking penalties will Alexei Ponikarovsky take? – and Leaf special teams aren’t exactly spectacular. I think more and more, the attention will be turned to Maurice unless the team’s production this season picks up. But as I’ve said before, this is not just about JFJ, or Maurice, or McCabe, or ownership – this is a franchise that has dysfunction at multiple levels.
Q: Hey Damien,
I love the blog and this mailbag. Keep up the good work.
Leaf fans, media alike love to blame the fact that the Leafs are owned by some large, money hungry corporation. I personally am no fan of these guys, and pre-lockout, I would have been the first to point out that they don't want to commit. However, in the Cap era, what else can they do? They (the organization) are spending the max?
If Ted Rogers purhcased the Leafs tommorow, what good would it really do? It's not like he can spend more money on players.
Trying to take the blame off of where it belongs, JFJ and whoever signs off on his boneheaded moves seems silly. I don't think it was the Teachers union who signed McCabe.
Scott T., Waterloo, Ont.
A: Agreed. It’s not just about how much money they spend, although some teams – New Jersey, to name one – have been willing to dump expensive veterans in the minors (Alexander Mogilny, Dan McGillis) – when they deemed their production was flagging, and that requires ownership to bite the bullet on paying out a contract that in some cases no longer counts against the salary cap. Leaf ownership has not yet been willing to do that, although they were willing to buy out Domi and Ed Belfour. Also, spending on coaches and minor-league affiliates is essentially unlimited, so those are areas in which an organization with financial muscle can use it.
Otherwise, ownership in the NHL these days is about direction and about putting quality people in positions of authority and letting them make the necessary decisions. With regard to the Leafs, ownership hired Ferguson when he had no GM experience, then hamstrung him by making him right key decisions past the board and made him work with Quinn even though Quinn had been his predecessor. During the summer, there was a search for a “senior hockey man,” clearly a slap in the face to Ferguson, and then the club backtracked on a promise to extend his contract. That last point, clearly, means he has to think about now more than the future. That doesn’t mean Ferguson shouldn’t be held accountable for his decisions, good and bad. It means ownership has to bear some responsibility for putting him in a difficult position. They hired him, they constructed the curious environment in which he has to work.
This has been a jumbled situation for a decade, since Cliff Fletcher left, really. Ken Dryden took control, built a strange four-headed management team that didn’t work, and then when Quinn became GM/coach, Dryden spent his time trying to get Bob Gainey hired as GM. Ownership is ultimately responsible for everything, and they have allowed the Leaf front office to be a quagmire for a long time.
Q: Hi Damien,
I've read a lot of articles as of late that suggest the Toronto Maple Leafs are a money hungry organization that will never put a good team on the ice until they have to. While I partially agree I would like to know why it's possible for other teams to make money yet care about their overall product. The Yankees and Red Sox make obscene amounts of money, why do they care so much?
David B., Kingston
A: Great question. And now that we know the Leafs make a 22 per cent profit on revenues as revealed in an excellent story last weekend by The Star’s Rick Westhead, it would be interesting to see whether George Steinbrenner’s return on the Yankees and John Henry’s return on the Red Sox equals or exceeds that figure.
It’s too simplistic to say Leaf ownership doesn’t care. I think they’d like to win, but don’t know how or aren’t willing to make the necessary expenditures and sacrifices necessary to produce a winner. Having guaranteed profits and full houses just gives the Leaf board of directors a nice cushion to work with, and other than Larry Tanenbaum, it’s not their money backing the team anyway. Both Steinbrenner and Henry, meanwhile, have proven they can apply the formula to win championships, and they are clearly men who very much put their personal pride and ego on the line. Most people never see the Leaf directors; they’re mostly a nameless, faceless group of suits representing other companies who own the Leafs.
Q: Hi Damien:
One area I think the Leafs really need to address is veteran leadership in that dressing room - I feel that these lazy performances and late game collapses starts with the veterans who have been idolized in this city for years, and frankly have lost a competitive edge.
For example, Gary Roberts showed up every game and had a Cup ring to show for it. I'm sure that kind of tenacity rubs off on younger team mates. And there are 3 veterans sitting at home right now without contracts that could be added for paltry dollars who could help the younger guys develop on and off the ice. Anson Carter had 33 goals 2 years ago playing with the Sedin's and is not playing. Danny Markov was a terrific defenceman for us who never had his effort questioned (unlike the Kubina's of the world), always had a great +/- (+25 with Detroit last season) and he's not playing. And finally, Jeff Friesen (a former 40+ point per year man and great competitor when he was with the Sharks / Devils) could inject some credibility in our veteran leadership (has a Stanley Cup Ring) and help some of our young talent develop every night.
Even if they bomb, they'd still cost about 1/3 of McCabe's salary, but could add a whole lot more. Thoughts?
Will McG, Toronto
A: I think you have to be careful with this kind of stuff because sometimes what we see on the surface doesn’t reflect what’s really going on inside a team. Markov, as you know, has now signed in Russia, and I can’t see Carter or Friesen making the kind of difference you talk about. I don’t either is regarded as a strong veteran leader.
I do wonder, however, about the Leaf veteran core. Specifically, they’ve changed everything else – the coaches, the goalies, the support players – and only the core of Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Darcy Tucker remains in place from the Quinn years. At some point, you have to acknowledge that group isn’t taking you where you want to go.
Q: Hi Damien;
It's not big as it use to be, but as a quick survey of the top 50, still 25% of NHLers are from Ontario. So - How much is the influence of all those mothers, brothers, sisters and aunts, etc etc sitting in Air Canada Centre have on incoming teams?
To me all incoming teams all have a 6th player on the ice, with 25% of players playing their A+ game, just to impress their dads.
Ron Kirby, St. John's, Nfld.
A: You’re not wrong. This has been the case for years whether it was Maple Leaf Gardens or the Air Canada Centre. But the same applies to a greater or lesser extent to all the Canadian cities, doesn’t it? When Vinny Lecavalier goes to Montreal, he’s pumped. Moreover, if these Ontario boys are inspired by getting to play in Toronto or on Hockey Night in Canada, you’d like to think the Leafs could put together a group of players who would be equally inspired.
Q: Damien: I was surpised to see that you missed the more devious point concerning the Taveres to the Marlies scam. The idea that they would move Taveres from the GMC, where he is drawing big crowds, to the Ricoh where he hopefully starts to draw bigger crowds, struck me as just a little cynical considering that MLSE gets a large fee for managing the Oshawa facility. Nice bit of managing (the GMC lost money in its first year of operation, incidently).
As a teacher, it’s embarassing to have a firm that one's pension plan owns, to be once again implicated in a scam involving a publicly financed building that they have their greedy paws all over. Need I remind you of the list? The aforementioned Richo centre, the Lions Club practice facility and of course, BMO field. Having part ownership in this organization that seems to love bilking municipalities out of their taxpayer funded facilities while our union campaigns hard for better government funding of public services, is almost as embarassing as when the pension plan owned a certain right-wing rag of a Toronto newspaper.
Rick Norman, Oshawa, Ont.
A: I have no problem with the teacher’s pension fund maximizing the return for their investors and clients. I just think its goals and needs are distinctly at odds with those necessary to run a championship NHL team. Outside of those who actually have a stake in the fund, most everyone would be happier if they got out of the hockey business entirely.
Q: When did Craig Button leave the Leafs, and why?
Tom Davis, Oakville
A: Button left last summer. The details are sketchy, but I don’t think it was a friendly parting. My understanding is that Button clashed with Ferguson on various internal matters, but neither has publicly explained the details. But it was a firing, not a mutual parting.
Q: I am a huge Leafs fan but I need to understand after witnessing the Ryan Smyth cry fest in Edmonton the other night, why he did not sign with the Oilers in the off-season? Obviously money was no object - Penner? He loves the city, the city loves him, so why Colorado? Also, why was he never made team captain? Captains Gilmour and Clark were the Leafs! He was(is) the Oilers.
Glen McMinn, Halifax
A: Two things. One, this was one of those cases when a decision is made – in this case, trading Smyth to the Islanders at the trade deadline – there’s no going back because so many bitter feelings were created.
Jason Smith was made captain of the Oilers back in ’01 when Smyth was only 25, so I guess the Oilers believe Smith was a better choice at the time and he proved to be a worthy captain.
When it came to money, the Oilers clearly believe spending $21.5 million over five years on the 25-year-old Dustin Penner was a better long-term decision than spending $31.25 million over the same five year players on a player who is six years older. Really, it was a dollar decision over very different commodities.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.